On Down the River
The Armstrong Clan has always been made up of troublemakers, reivers and brigands. Forcibly removed from their homeland, the Borders, between Scotland and England, they were relocated to Northern Ireland where they continued to oppose all authority, refusing to bend the knee to anyone.
In 1734 the Pater Familia of my branch of the Armstrong Clan, James Armstrong, migrated to North America. He settled in South Carolina along with thousands of other Scots/Irish from Northern Ireland, where they continued their hard headed, stiff necked, obstinate ways, opposing all authority and may well have been a contributing factor in South Carolina being the first to initiate rebellion against the North, triggering the American Civil War. They didn’t own any slaves but they loved a good fight.
Once that war was lost, my family made their way west to Texas, settling south of Fort Worth. They farmed, mostly, that is until the soil played out. They practiced the Scots/Irish way of using up the fertility of the land until it refused to produce anymore, then moving on.
By the early twentieth century most had migrated southwest into the limestone hills and cedar brakes of Somervell County, eaking out a living as cedar choppers, tenant farmers or ranch hands. Several became moonshiners and had significant success during the prohibition years. Never able to be content with prosperity, they blew through any money they had, so they were perpetually at rock bottom of the societal economic ladder.
A few, tried growing marijuana in the seventies and spent significant time in Huntsville prison as a fruit of their labor. In the late eighties, my cousin Claude blew up his meth lab with him in it. He was permanently blinded and badly scarred as a result, but getting a monthly disability check from the government seemed a pretty fair trade off, as it was enough money to keep him in liquor. He never was a man that liked work.
As men, the Armstrongs were skinny, rawboned, poorly educated, bad tempered, feisty sonsabitches. For the most part they regarded themselves as superior to any human that was not white. They continued, even to this modern day, to hold a grudge against black folk, blaming them for the Union army’s victory and the South’s defeat.
My cousin Sterling was one who possessed all of these negative familial traits. He was a lanky, long legged young man with blondish hair. Not enough hair on his face to grow a beard but he always sported a thin moustache. He dressed in jeans, western boots and invariably had a hat cocked on his head at a rakish angle. He was a personable fellow, even to the extent when he asked to borrow money, you knew that money was never coming back but you gave it to him anyway. People couldn’t help but like him.
Never one to back down, Sterling got into an argument in a bar one night with a man much larger than he. He knew it was going to end in a fight so he struck the first blow. He had a highball glass in his hand and violently shoved it into the man’s face, breaking the glass, cutting the man’s face terribly and dropping him to the floor without further struggle.
Once that fellow left the hospital, he engaged a lawyer to bring a civil suit against Sterling for assault and damages. Sterling in turn found the man’s address, torched his house in the middle of the night with him in it. As the man was escaping the inferno with nothing on but his underdrawers, Sterling set his pickup truck on fire as well, just for good measure. Sterling went to the penitentiary but he believed he had won the argument.
Sterling was locked up for five years, getting out early for good behavior. He had left a wife at home. She had grown lonely, weary of waiting so she had taken a lover. When Sterling was released he returned to the familial manse, an old run down, two story plantation style mansion. At times there were two or three family groups of Armstrongs, down on their luck, living in this decrepit old house.
The day Sterling walked through the front door, it appeared no one was home and as he sauntered throughout the house, he discovered his wife’s lover asleep in an upstairs bedroom. He retrieved his grandfather’s double barrell shotgun from a closet and squeezed both triggers simultaneously, decapitating the man as he slept, painting the bedroom wall red with blood, brains and bone fragments. He walked out and seemingly disappeared into thin air. He has not been seen by his family since.
Three years later, a friend of mine, Jink Jones, was in a bar one afternoon talking to an old drunk named Buck Peebles. Buck lived down on the Brazos River in a derelict fishing camp. When he was in his cups he liked to talk and brag a lot. He got to boasting about a man he had killed on the river. Jink was drawing information out of him and realized he was talking about my cousin Sterling. He was able to get Buck to talk long enough to piece together the story of what happened .
Apparently once he walked out of the familial manse, Sterling hitchhiked west on US highway 67, caught a ride westbound and asked to be let out at the Brazos River bridge. After dark he stole a kayak from a gas station/canoe rental business and proceeded to float on down the river. The next morning he was seven or eight miles down river from where he had put in. He recognised the fishing camp he was approaching, as we had been there often as kids.
Our grandfather took us fishing in that camp a number of times when we were young. Back in the day the camp was very nice. There were cabins to rent for a weekend, a small store that sold bait, beer and picnic supplies. Grandad would take us in the Spring during the sand bass run and we always caught a lot of fish.
Now, the camp was tumbledown with only four old alcoholics in residence, with a couple of worn out old whores attempting to sell their bodies to anyone who had a dollar. Over the years the camp degenerated into a place for illegal gambling, fist fights, cock fights and a whole host of other nefarious activities, until good folks simply stayed away. What remained was an assortment of tar paper shacks, and broken down travel trailers, many of which had simply been abandoned.
Buck Peebles, in his younger days, had been a Somervell County Deputy Sheriff for ten years. He was kicked out of the department because it was becoming too widely known that he was abusing his authority to gain sexual favors from women he arrested on trumped up charges. He was a low life, no good, alcoholic rat bastard.
Buck was standing waist deep in the river as Sterling floated up to him, submerging his head to cool the sick hangover he was suffering. He recognised Sterling and invited him up to his little travel trailer. He was in dire need of getting a couple of shots of the ‘hair of the dog’ in him to straighten his head out.
Buck shared his bottle of vodka as he whipped up some scrambled eggs and bacon for them both. A couple of hours later with both of them well oiled and out of vodka, Buck said he’d drive to get another bottle if Sterling had any money. Sterling pulled a wad of bills out of his pocket, the money he had earned while in prison, and gave Buck a ten for liquor.
Buck suspected that there was at least a couple thousand dollars in that wad of bills. As they stepped out of the trailer, Buck behind Sterling pulled a Saturday night special out of his pocket and shot Sterling in the back of the head. He dug the wad of money from Sterling’s pocket, counting out fifty-three dollars. Stunned . . . he had killed a man for fifty-three dollars.
Too late now . . . he dragged the body down to the river bank and placed it in his boat equipped with a twelve horsepower Sea King motor. He puttered down the river about a mile, found some heavy rocks to tie to the body, using baling wire and sank Sterling’s body into a deep pool of water.
I awoke with Pearl lightly stroking my morning wood. She liked morning sex best of all and she preferred to initiate these sessions herself. That was fine with me as I appreciated an aggressive woman. We had been together for nearly five years, not married except in the eyes of the state of Texas, which considered us a common law marriage. We had a good relationship we were both happy with as we were friends as well as lovers.
Pearl was a damn fine looking woman, skin black and beautiful, with a pretty face, trim curvy body. Most of my family did not accept that I was living with a black woman but I just didn’t care. I did not have that predilection to racism that most of my kinfolk were afflicted with.
After our morning lovemaking, we got dressed and made breakfast. My buddy Jink, knocked on the door and came into our single wide trailer. He told me about a conversation he had with an old drunk, Buck Peebles, the evening before. Apparently, Buck had bragged about killing my cousin Sterling and that was why he hadn’t been seen for the last three years. As he told the whole story, I became apoplectic with rage. Jink finished his story, cup of coffee and left.
Pearl looked at me and said, “I know what you thinkin’, you should just leave it lay, ain’t nuthin’ gonna bring Sterling back from the dead. I don’t want to lose you if that old man shoots you.”
“I hear what you’re saying but my blood’s boiling and I gotta kill that sumbitch to balance things out. I’m gonna load that kayak in the bed of my truck and I need you to drive me to the river.”
Pearl knew better than to argue over this, she didn’t like it but she helped me load the kayak, packed my backpack with food and water as I pulled my old twenty-two caliber rifle out of the closet. We left our home and drove to the Brazos Point bridge which was about three miles north of the fishing camp and Buck Peebles.
As I unloaded the kayak, we agreed that she would be waiting for me down river at Hamm Creek Park in twenty-four hours. She drove back home as I dragged the kayak down to the river bank and pushed off.
Floating downriver, the world was quiet with only an occasional cawing from a murder of crows. I tilted my head back with eyes closed and took a deep breath of the rich air of the river bottom. The air was humid and thick with the smells of growing things, slightly fishy at times with just a little spice of wildflowers in the mix. It helped to settle the rage burning within me.
About an hour after sunset I recognized the old fishing camp, paddled to the river bank, pulled the kayak out of the water and found a hidden spot to settle in for the night. The only thing troubling me was my fear of water moccasins biting me while I slept. I hate snakes.
I woke as the sun’s rays were beginning to illuminate the river bottom, my body stiff and achy. I ate a couple of protein bars and drank a bottle of water for breakfast. I began to move down the river bank to get a clear view of the fishing camp, hoping Buck would show himself so I could get this business over with.
I found a fallen tree to hide behind, giving me a clear view of several of the trailers. I had no idea which one might be Buck’s. I lay on the ground for three or so hours till finally I heard a door open and close. I peeked out from behind my tree trunk and recognized Buck Peebles. He stepped out on the wooden stoop at his door, pulled his old shrivelled pecker out to piss.
I raised my rifle, took careful aim and squeezed the trigger. The slug tore through Buck’s right knee and he was down on the ground howling, pissing himself, blood soaking through his pants leg.
I got up from my hide and sauntered over to Buck, still squalling and writhing in pain. “Good morning, Buck. Looks like you’re having a rough start to your day.”
“You son of a bitch, why’d you shoot me?”
“Well, it’s like this, word has gotten around to me you killed my cousin Sterling and I’m here to bring balance to this equation, you savvy?”
“I don’t even know you, what the fuck are you talking about?”
I pointed the barrel at his crotch and pulled the trigger. Buck began another spasm of howling, thrashing on the ground as more blood soaked through his pants. “You know who I am don’t you? Say my name.”
“Colm, why the fuck you doin’ this? Gottdam!”
“I want to know what you did with Sterling’s body. Tell me the truth or I’ll put a slug in your other knee and leave you here to bleed out.”
“I . . . I took him down river about a mile and tied some big rocks to him. I sunk him in a deep pool. If you hadn’t shot me, I could’ve taken you there.”
“Well, there wouldn’t be anything left of him now, would there? I just needed to know. I also need you to know that you fucked with the wrong family. We can’t leave these loose ends out there, people might begin to think they could fuck with us without consequence. That just ain’t happening.”
Buck looked at me, eyes wide in horror as I pointed the barrel at his forehead and squeezed the trigger.
I strolled back to the river bank, not caring if any of the other residents saw me. They were old drunks that couldn’t identify me if they tried. I put the kayak into the water and pushed off. I floated down the river about a mile and located a large deep pool that I sensed was where Sterling’s body had been dumped. I held my rifle over the water, releasing it to sink as I didn’t want the murder weapon to be found. Sterling, rest easy, I’ve restored the balance.
I leaned back, relaxed and let the flow of the river take me to the pick up point. It would take most of the day to get there. Wished I’d a thought to bring some weed with me. When I get home I’m gonna smoke a fat one and take a long nap. Mid-afternoon I began to hear large caliber rifle shots, probably someone doing a little target practice as deer season would be opening next week. I don’t know what target they were shooting at, but occasionally a shot ricocheted with a distinctive pwwinnnggg. . . .
As I floated closer, I determined there were at least two rifles being fired, one was obviously a larger caliber. I’ll bet that big one is a 30.06 and the other a .243. That might be a husband and wife sighting in their scopes? Maybe a Dad and a teenage son? I remember my hunting days, going out before dawn, climbing up into a tree stand, freezing my ass off. That last doe I killed, when I approached her and she was in her death struggle, that broke me, she was so beautiful and me having that epiphany that she was not just some dumb animal but a sentient being. Her last breaths such a struggle as she clung to life, I felt shame and wept at what I’d done. I’d never kill again . . . well what did you just do this morning, killing Buck didn’t seem to bother, what about that? That sumbitch had it coming, he was guilty as sin, killing Sterling like he did. I ain’t weepin’ over that fucker.
I noticed I was floating too close to the bank, I sat upright to paddle back into the middle of the current when a heavy thump hit my chest and a split second later I heard the pwwinnnggg . . . of a ricochet.
Stunned, I looked down and saw blood foaming out of my chest. I leaned back and the last thought that passed through my mind as the darkness took me . . . “Ye be a livin’ by the sword, ye be a perishin’ by the sword.”
. . . on down the river.